It seems like nearly every kid plays organized sports – but is that always a good thing? The answer: It depends.
Young people who participate in organized sports are more likely to grow up to be physically active adults who attend college, have better self-esteem and leadership skills and are less likely to be depressed, compared to those who didn’t play sports.
So what’s the downside? Plenty, it turns out. For one, organized sports can be expensive. According to a 2014 survey by the University of Florida’s Sport Policy & Research Collaborative, sports that require travel cost families an average of $2,266 per child annually. That puts these activities out of reach for millions of families.
Studies have also shown that minority children, girls and those with physical challenges may have reduced access to sports, as do kids who live in urban areas. And then there’s the risk of physical injury.
But regardless of financial limitations, gender or age, participation in organized sports is widespread. Some estimates say that 69 percent of girls and 75 percent of boys age 8 and older participate in organized and team sports, and there are clubs for children as young as 3. So how can parents evaluate what’s best for their kids and for their family? These pointers can help.
Stress the good.
Let your kids know what you value about sports. Talk to them about healthy competition, sportsmanship, determination, resilience, teamwork and empathy for those who fall outside the winners circle. “Use sports to develop better athletes and people,” says David Jacobson of Positive Coaching Alliance.
Know your coaches.
Although the vast majority of coaches are great role models, there’s no shortage of horror stories about youth coaches who bully or abuse players. Coaches who focus solely on winning are doing so at the expense of the kids’ experiences. “Those coaches are not going to pay attention to developing all the kids equally,” says Jacobson. “With that lack of attention, kids can’t absorb the very real life lessons that sports inherently offer.”
Weigh all your options.
Review the clubs and in-school sports and turn to other parents and online resources for insights. Go to games before you sign up, and listen to the group’s leadership, coaches and parents who attend. “Make sure they embody the values you want for your children,” says Jacobson.
Listen to your kids.
Sports can be stressful, even for talented athletes. Jam-packed schedules, endless practice sessions and a win-at-all-costs mentality lead to frustration and stress for children (and their parents). That may be why 70 percent of kids end up leaving organized sports by age 13. “Negative influences from coaches and parents can take the fun out games,” says Dr. Stacy L. Leatherwood, a pediatrician and the physician champion for childhood wellness for Henry Ford’s LiveWell blog. “While developing skills for sports participation is important, it’s just as important for kids to enjoy themselves.” Committing a child to one season on a team is reasonable, says Leatherwood. It isn’t reasonable to expect a youngster to re-up with a sport they don’t enjoy or aren’t willing to put in the effort needed to improve.
Set shared goals – and say no if you have to.
Before you start a sport, talk to your kids about what they want to get out of their playing time, says Dr. Leatherwood. “After goals are set, talk about how you and the coach can work with them to achieve their goals.” But set limits on participation, too, when faced with commitments such as homework or nonsports activities.
Keep your options open.
Year-round participation and focusing on a single sport at a young age are troubling trends in youth sports, agree both Leatherwood and Jacobson. Studies back them up. Kids do better with a variety of activities with defined seasons that give kids a goal to work toward (say, a season-ending meet or a piano recital, for that matter). “As a parent, your goal should be to strive for balance between home, school, and extracurricular activities. Children should not have to rush from one activity to the next,” says Leatherwood. “There should be downtime for creativity and enjoying other areas of interest. Sports are only one piece of what can be enjoyable for children.
For ways to encourage better coaching and resources for parents and administrators, check out the tools at positivecoach.org or PCADevZone.org.